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Publication of Pagans in the Early Modern Baltic

My book Pagans in the Early Modern Baltic: Sixteenth-Century Ethnographic Accounts of Baltic Paganism is published today by Arc Humanities Press.

Pagans in the Early Modern Baltic is the first translation into English of the key Latin texts written between around 1450 and 1580 about the religion, culture and language of the Balts, at a time when paganism was still a living reality in the Baltic region. The Union of Krewo and the formal conversion of Lithuania to Christianity in 1387 created a vast domain ruled by the Lithuanian Jagiellonian dynasty. It therefore became imperative for the scholars of Europe to understand Lithuania and the Lithuanians, who had become in a short time one of the major powers of Catholic Christendom. Pagans in the Early Modern Baltic brings together the writings of ten authors of diverse nationalities (Polish, Lithuanian, German and Italian) who were all trying to make sense of the Baltic peoples in the context of the Renaissance ethnography of the time. These authors, who displayed genuine curiosity about Baltic beliefs and customs even while they condemned pagan ignorance, preserved valuable information about Baltic cultures (although it is important to treat these sources, largely written by outsiders, with caution). The book includes the entire texts of Jan Łasicki’s On the Gods of the Samogitians and Jan Malecki’s Little Book on the Sacrifices and Idolatry of the Old Prussians, as well as extracts from larger works that discussed Baltic religion and society.

Understanding Lithuania and the pagans of the Baltic posed particular conceptual challenges in a late medieval Europe dominated by monotheistic faiths. The problem of understanding the pagans of the Baltic foreshadowed the even greater challenge of engaging with the indigenous peoples of the New World after 1492. Encounters with Baltic pagans and other pre-Christian societies in the Old World prepared Europeans to encounter the global reality of human cultural and religious diversity in the sixteenth century. In 1410, under the patronage of Władysław II Jagiełło, the Polish scholar Paweł Włodkowic became one of the first to argue for the ‘natural rights’ of pagans before the Council of Constance, in the context of the pagan Samogitians’ right to be free of the oppression of the Teutonic Order. The Latin texts translated in Pagans in the Early Modern Baltic could be read by learned individuals throughout Catholic Christendom, and embodied a complex set of responses to Baltic religion that ranged from admiration and nostalgia to condemnation and disgust. Either way, however, Renaissance Europe was fascinated by a real or imagined pagan Baltic world.

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